Bridges of New York City

Robert’s idea of adventure for yesterday was to walk the Queensboro Bridge (Ed Koch Bridge or 59th Street Bridge) from Manhattan to Queens. This bridge passes over Roosevelt Island, and we go past it everyday on the tram. Robert asked me many times if we can walk on it to Queens, so he was very excited when we made our way toward the pedestrian ramp. It was perhaps the first acceptable warm day after a long winter with unseasonable snow.

After that long walk we continued our trek to Steinway in Astoria where we had a late lunch at an Arabic restaurant. I do not often crave Arabic food, but last Sunday we were with friends at the same place and I had a taste of their Kushari, an Egyptian dish with brown lentil, rice, macaroni and lots of crispy-fried onion.

Today we had another adventure planned, again at my son’s suggestion, walking to Brooklyn via the Brooklyn Bridge. Compared to the functional and utilitarian Queensboro Bridge, this one is considered the tourist walk. The Pedestrian Ramp on Manhattan side is surrounded with every manner of stand and refreshment seller – They were selling Belgian waffles, New York pretzels, Juice, gyro, trinkets and fridge magnets and various artwork. Robert and I had the sweet and messy waffles just before embarking on our walk.

While Queensboro bridge had an equal number of walkers and cyclists, this one was crowded with walkers, mostly tourists. The bridge itself is a great architectural achievement, considering it was built in 1883. I am not sure what the walk would be like in normal conditions but at this time the view was obstructed in most part by sheet metal, and it looked like several parts of the bridge were draped or screened for maintenance. There were several views or vantage points where we took pictures, getting crowded with the many visitors. Along the walk there are benches and more stands selling trinkets and snacks. One of the most popular stands was an Indian guy carving perfect mango roses on wooden sticks. When I walked past his stand, a Japanese tourist had just bought one of his edible artworks, and was busy pointing her gigantic camera at it, for a closeup.

I had planned this time to go to a South African restaurant in Fort Green in Brooklyn, but the combination of the rich treat, the time, and the chilly weather, made me abandon this plan. Instead we spent some time at a Brooklyn playground.

View from Manhattan Bridge looking towards Brooklyn Bridge

Because of the less than perfect conditions on the Brooklyn Bridge I suggested that we walk back to Manhattan via the Manhattan Bridge. Robert was extremely enthusiastic. This bridge had interesting sights, a view of the Brooklyn Bridge, and connected with Manhattan at Chinatown. We had interesting views (Interviews – as Robert called them) of Chinatown. In terms of accessible view of the outside, this bridge gave a better experience than the Brooklyn Bridge in its current condition. The main drawback, however, is that the walking route is right beside a busy train route, four tracks are used for the B D Q and N trains in and out of Brooklyn, so perhaps it is better to walk here with earplugs.

In all our excursion on bridges we noted that instead of graffiti, people put locks with special messages, and names usually accompanied by a date. I would assume that these locks would get cut out regularly, but we saw some that looked quite old. There was even a bright red one with the date 05-12-13, a date that hasn’t arrived yet (even if you read it the American way).

Do You Know Why?

Why is it that building managers in New York city spare no expense to warn us with bilingual signs of wet floor (piso mojado) and never bother to install warnings visual or otherwise of those gaping trap-doors leading to underground or basement steps. I always find myself dodging them at lunchtime, and wonder how many people ended up in wheelchairs through a wrong-footed encounter with them.

The City of Contradictions

New York city inspires extreme emotions. You either love it, or loathe it, but you can never be indifferent about it. Everyone has an opinion of the city, and the city itself flaunts its  obnoxious self-assurance at a new arrival,  “I am, larger than life, I am the center of the universe, consider yourself lucky to be here”.

The city known as the Big Apple figures it has the right to turn your life upside down and mold its details to her whims, then has the audacity to re-define these details for you. You can still have leisure time, lunch-breaks, traffic jams, coffee breaks, or take walks in the park. But you quickly find out that New York city has taken over these concepts, creating its own unique version. It completes the insult to the stranger by keeping the vocabulary intact while stripping it of familiar meaning.

On arrival, people generally react in two different ways. The first set of people are those who fall under the city’s spell or surrender to its power. This group includes those who were always fascinated by the fame of the city, from the movies, the sitcoms, the books, and its marketing machine, as a city like no other. In the words of Frank Sinatra, if you can make it there you can make it anywhere. The second set of people show resistance to the city. Those are as varied and diverse in their motivation as the first group, some miss the familiar and resent the ways of this mega-metropolis, others begrudge it is affluence and commercial focus, another group still hates the waste, the crowds, the rush, the bustle.  Strangely enough, every characteristic pointed out as a vice by the city’s opponents could be construed as a virtue by its loyal proponents. It has always been a highly divisive place.

I have made no secret of my sentiment in the past few months. I started out extremely critical and antagonistic of the city. However, like all powerful entities it has started to garner my respect. Never mind how obnoxious it is. Never mind its paved parks, its incomprehensibly ugly architecture and equally baffling modern art. Never mind its packed subways and its never ending rush. Amazingly, this city still works.

Consider first its sprawling size, with over ten million residents, give or take a few hundred thousands daytime commuters. I go to Midtown on Sunday, and it is a different place. I walk at leisure chatting to my son, while during the week I have to keep a brisk pace, if I don’t want to bump into people, and I can only hear him if he shouts. Then consider the city’s diversity, the number of people who live ans survive here without speaking one work of English. One has to admit that things break down sometimes, but I have no experience of any other city of this size, and running it efficiently must be a tremendous challenge. I think what I appreciate now most, is that this monster of a city, made out of so many disparate elements and people, a city you would think that no glue in the world can hold together, amazingly sticks together very well. And this discovery makes this place more precious in the eyes of those who never expected it to pull through.

Last year, I met a South African woman who introduced herself as a proud American. She had won the green card lottery some years back and found a niche for herself teaching computer literacy. At the time I profiled her immediately in my mind, she is a disgruntled white person, I thought, running away from a South Africa that has embraced a majority rule, and from the perception of losing privilege. I have revisited my thoughts about her since then. I remember her saying that she became fiercely American after 9/11, and I thought that was an incongruous romantic rubbish coming from someone as hard-boiled as that middle-aged woman.  Now I think I understand her feeling. New York city may look tough and heartless but if you look deep enough she has a soul.

As late as six months ago, I was quite sure that New York was pretentious and soul-less. I even remember sending an email to my American friend Peter telling him how I despised this place. He said that America had a soul, but it was so well-hidden, that you can only find it when you are not really looking. I think he was on to something.

I think I started warming to New York sometime between soccer practice with Robert and lining up costume-less for the Halloween Parade on Roosevelt Island.  When Sandy came it taught me something more about the New York soul. I saw regular people buying groceries for the stricken and volunteering their time. I saw the city pull together and make alternative plans. I found it quite remarkable. This in the city where people walk past a disabled beggar pretending he is not there. There is a sense of community that defies you not to be part of it. Everyone I know has contributed even in a small way.  If 9/11 forged the American patriotism of my South African acquaintance, then Sandy taught me about New York the community, away from the excess and ruin of wall-street, the lobbying and petty politics of the UN-headquarters, the concrete and the real estate.

It can be many contradicting things – cruel, kind, surprising, hot, cold, exasperating, embarrassing, tragic, funny, and entertaining,  but it can never be boring.  There are  always little nuggets of gold, moments that are there to savour amid the rush, the noise and the stress.

Yesterday Robert and I boarded the local bus on 3rd avenue. The driver was announcing the station then saying : “look to left, smile at your neighbour. Look to your right say hi, make a friend”. It was Friday night, so it was perhaps not surprising that the passengers humored him, but I noted that there conversation on this bus was more animated than usual. Before we got out at our stop, Robert had a chance of singing a refrain of the Wheels on the Bus, started again by the driver. That bus driver may have been acting against MTA rules, but he made many people happy.  Welcome to New York. One day you encounter a happy bus driver, another day you come close to getting run over on a crosswalk. Never a dull moment.

Food, Glorious American Food (not)

One of the first culture shocks I suffered after coming from South Africa, was the monster of American food markets. Mind you, I spent ten years in South Africa, so my palette was not too demanding, and since I did not visit any fancy restaurants in the past year, I still have very primitive taste when it comes to food. Soon after my first frustrating visit to a New York supermarket, or food retailer, I found out that Americans do not make simple straightforward foods.

The first thing I wanted to buy was cereal. For years in South Africa, my breakfast consisted of Weetbix, topped with the fruit of the season and milk. Such a simple thing is extremely hard to find here. Instead there are the Corn Flakes, the Crispies and various other types with more than necessary sugar content. Things get much worse when we are talking children cereals, because they are mainly chunks, or nodules in violently brilliant color that cannot possibly be natural. I have resigned myself to giving Robert occasionally some candy in those awful colors because there are no other kinds, but I am not about to give him breakfast disguised as candy. I have enough trouble as it is with his sweet tooth. The candy of course is a completely different story, in South Africa we had Smarties with natural food coloring, here they insist on electric greens and blues for their m&ms. Everything else has the same hideous colors, so I take refuge in the imported brands. The local -much advertised- brand of chocolate is beyond awful, I would take Beacons (our local and by no way best brand in South Africa) any day instead. Even Robert, who is hardly discerning when it comes to candy, does not like that local brand.

The next horrific discovery for me was the bread. Why do they bake every type of bread with really noticeable amounts of sugar? For the first time in my life I found myself carefully reading the ingredients of bread, which is supposed to be the simplest recipe humans ever made. It is not that simple here. There is bread with High Fructose Corn Syrup (more about this in a minute), and bread without it, but they all taste sweet. After four months of reading bread packages, I was complaining to a colleague that this terrible place (I could not stand New York in the beginning) did not even have plain simple bread. He told me to look for bread alone, which turned out to be the name of the brand. I finally can eat bread without tasting sugar.

The issue with High Fructose Corn Syrup is another strange phenomenon of America. This type of “sugar” is used for almost all beverages, and like anything else in America, the effects of its heavy usage, good or bad, will be upon us in a generation or two. Regardless of whether this is a natural or a synthetic sugar, there is a problem with the American diet and its dependence on sugar. I rarely use sugar for anything other than baking, but I still feel that my consumption of it has increased.

One of the things I miss most about South Africa is the abundance of local fruit and vegetables. I also miss the local South African meat; the excellent beef, ostrich, fish and chicken I used to enjoy. Perhaps things have deteriorated in the year I was away, especially in terms of prices, but the quality is still the same, I think. The fruit I had back in April was wonderful. I ate my fill of mango, pawpaw and avocado and many others. I cannot do the same here. Who knows what types of industrial pesticides are used on the produce here. In South Africa I never bothered with organic. Here, for the privilege of eating organic food and produce,  I easily pay double the regular prices for groceries, but I cannot bring myself to eat anything else. The thought of handling mass-produced meet makes me cringe.

Of course there is no escaping normal non-organic food when I eat out or buy my lunch from one of the mobile vendors so common to Midtown Manhattan. And sometimes it is simply too expensive to buy organic, so I go one step down, to kosher for example. I sometimes even wonder whether this whole organic food is not just a ploy to make us paranoid consumers fork out more money. I questioned this today as I was choosing some peaches from the “organic” basket. Nothing but some stickers distinguished its peaches from the regular peaches across the aisle at half the price.

Losing it… Again.

I have been living in New York now for over a year, and time has once more flown and there are many things I failed to catch up with.

Last year, against all odds I had a very close brush with falling in love. It was not pretty. I had the anxiety, the heartache, I was worried, and I was jealous. Mostly though I felt guilty and uncomfortable. When this happened, it came out of nowhere, and after all the tears and the self-blame and the fear, it suddenly died down to nothing. When I finally put an end to it, I felt nothing but absolute relief.

This puts a new spin on my life. Now I have entered the realm of villains. I broke up, without thinking twice or giving any reason, with someone who has perhaps learned to love me. I am ashamed of this, a little, but I could not pretend love once it was gone. It is over, I face it, and live with the consequences. Now there is an awkward silence between two people who perhaps could have been friends, if it was not for a period of insanity when I allowed emotion to triumph over reason.

Last March Robert and I flew to South Africa, and shortly after that trip I decided to pull the plug on my ailing project of a relationship. Since April I have vowed to devote myself to my work, and to my son. I scarcely have time for myself, let alone the energy to nurture a relationship or heaven forbid a late second marriage. Besides, now that I am past forty I think it makes sense to play it cool. I am almost certainly past bearing another child, so why should I try to find a mate? Unfortunately, unlike my mother, I find myself often swayed from the kingdom of reason, especially that there is no lack of single men in the workplace. In all the years following my divorce I was always surrounded by married men, seriously involved men, or gay men. These are my kind of men, they are safe to flirt and joke with, and they are certainly off limits. I am immune to married men. Ironically, I was also safe when I was caught in the emotional wasteland of my marriage. I only started noticing other men when I broke away from it.

If it was not for my spectacular failure in my latest attempt at sharing my life with another person, I would have perhaps thrown caution to the wind, and got to know this new man that I noticed recently. But the memory and shame of that failure haunt me. I have come to suspect that, indeed, I am not fit to share with anyone.

My ex husband used to tell me that I was way too independent. He is right somewhat. I cannot bear being questioned and second guessed by a man. I would rather live with a man who did not care much, who left me some freedom, than succumb to someone who would censor my behavior with a boyfriend’s or husband’s authority. Needless to say that this train of thought and these developments in my life are starting to worry me. Therefore I will try to write about them again. Writing helped me very much through a divorce. Maybe it will protect me from setting myself up to fall in love again, because I know in advance that any romantic project I enter into will be certainly doomed to failure. Married life is not for me. Kudos to my ex who is busy trying it for the 3rd time.

Keeping New York at Bay

New York is perhaps the most pretentious city in the world. This may not be directly obvious, given that the vast majority of its people are far from snobbish, but it is has this attitude about itself. It fancies itself the best city in the world.

I came here reluctantly. I stay here, as I keep telling myself, temporarily. I try to let the city not get too much under my skin. But still, it is hard to keep it out. For one its noise permeates everything. It feels like you are permanently stuck in traffic, in an idling car. You can even feel the vibration on the road. Only in an idling car you are capable of listening to, and having a conversation with your five-year old son. Here it is not always possible.

My son is quite happy here. Six months into my exile here, he started saying that New York is the “bestest city in the world” – Africa already seems to him exotic and far. He sometimes imitates me by saying he wants to go back to Africa. Mostly when it is terribly cold outside. Still, I think he gets too much American “culture” – I sometimes wonder whether it has anything going for it other than Thanksgiving,  Fourth of July fireworks and Halloween. Even those if you think closely were thanks to non-American elements. I mean Halloween is an imported feast, Thanksgiving was due to the natives misguided generosity and the Fourth of July, well, it is just when these haphazard immigrants decided they have what it takes to become a nation, but do they really? It is another story.

I am always at pains to find the genuine heart of America, the soul of America, if you will. But perhaps New York is the wrong place to look. Because here they built shrines for the mighty greenback, and in my opinion the whole structure is going to crumble around their ears very soon. Apart from the greenback there is nothing much left here that is American. All is made in China, even my highly touted iPhone.

Greed seems to be the machinery that fuels everything in New York. Those people rushing and jostling on the bus or train or subway are perhaps rushing to close some deal. Wall Street is the place where people dream of making a fast buck, and where so many already watched their wealth evaporate literally into thin air.  The city lives on hype and lies. In fact hype might have been invented in New York first before Hollywood took over manufacturing it. How many people followed the illusion of wealth this city represented only to end up in a gutter. How many people believed its golden lies?

I refuse to be swallowed by the city and all it stands for. I hide on Roosevelt Island, where I can watch the city at a safe distance. And like my island, I still refuse to let the big city take me over. For how long? Only time will tell.

Thank God for Roosevelt Island

The little apple is not for everyone and now that I have read about it and researched it I begin to understand why.

The Island is merely a rock, about 3 km long and only 0.24 km wide at its fattest point. It is like someone dropped a long raft in the East River across from the East side of Manhattan (it extends from E 46th street to E83rd). From my windows I can see the UN General Assembly building, and the Trump Tower where I occasionally sit for lunch break.

The Island has a bad reputation. I have heard people referring to it as an “enclave of isolation” a “ghetto” and it is ranked 47 in the best neighborhoods to live in according to New York Magazine, with some parts of the Bronx and Staten Island faring better. The online article has a charming picture there, but dismissively says that although its setting suggests a small town atmosphere within a big city, it never quite found its own retail or street culture, and remains notoriously inconvenient.

Its history is no less colourful. The dutch bought from the Indians in the 17th century. It was  called Blackwell Island for a time. Between 1921 and 1973 it was known as Welfare Island, for obvious reasons. Its residents have an equal stigma attached to them because of that designation. Also if you consider that shortly after the City of New York bought it in the 1920s it housed the petiniary, the lunatic asylum and the smallpox hospital, you would understand the deep dark history of RI.

Before I chose to rent here I took a walk around the Island on a dark and wet day of early spring. The streets were deserted and gray, the abandoned shops looked grimy and forbidding behind dusty windows. The skyline on Manhattan side looks nice but towards Queens you look towards a Costco warehouse and three chimneys of a thermal power station. The “retail” section of Main Street has the look of a long history of decay and neglect and the playgrounds were abandoned. The high number of disabled and rehab patients in their motorised or manual wheelchairs adds to the melancholy of the setting.

Once spring and sunshine arrived things started looking different. I took walks after work, and saw families, romantic couples and even fishermen along the promenade. The broken paving and rusty railings remind me of home in South Africa, and although I do not get from this promenade an ocean-wide view to Robben Island and beyond like in Cape Town, it still smells and feels like the sea. Best thing is that I have the river as a buffer zone to seperate me from the city that I still mistrust.

Out of Balance in New York

I am bombarded by unspeakable feelings and fears since I arrived here. Perhaps it is the change of seasons, the change of scenes, changes in my own circumstances, or it is just another milestone .. a passing midlife crisis.

When I first came here I suffered intense homesickness for Cape Town.  I tried to function within the parameters of my new existence, but alien things were all around: Parks as spaces of asphalt and rubber floors,  skeletal trees and flowers behind protective bars. All this next to the ever-present noise, and the mobs.  There was no escape from the oppressive weight of the city, even if I looked up beseeching the heavens I would only see a strips of blue stabbed with silver skyscrapers. I missed looking at grass, sea and a big wide sky. Once I was so miserable, I cried openly in the middle of a playground and was grateful for the shoulder of my mother; she helped me out that day despite her own homesickness. There were countless other times I cried myself to sleep and wished I had never come here.

Things will get easier, this is what people tell me. You will get used to the convenience of the city and get desensitized against noise, pollution, stress and all the ailments of this Big Apple.  In fact, things are starting to fall into place since I came to live on Roosevelt Island. I come to the peace of home and can look at Manhattan from the safety of this rock. I do not need the hectic city and its uncivilized people jostling and elbowing to be one second ahead of me at the subway platform.

Most days I ignore the city, trying to live in my own insular bubble on the island. When I have to meet Manhattan I block her out with music, South African radio shows or even an audio book. There are also some days when I swear to try making our relationship work. I will put up with her greed, her blatant consumerism and her egocentric qualities that threaten to swallow me whole. On some rare evenings when I see her across the East River, blushing red and gold in the setting sun, I can almost allow myself to love her.  But I know that the next day she will be her dismissive and cruel self, wanting my heart and my soul and offering me only the spoils and burdens of a living.

There are the good things, I admit. I like my job and Robert will have a good education. I get along very well with my colleagues and working beside them and with them made me realize what I missed in eleven years of living in my adopted country. I missed speaking the language I grew up with, it has been a long time since I last read an Arabic novel and discussed its plot and style.  It has been ages since I spoke with someone who closely knows the complex political situation in my birth country and understands the implications of what is happening there. Outside of my family, it is perhaps over a decade since I agreed with anyone on the contentious and paradoxical issue of religion.

I am finally able to do all that again, and I enjoy it. I feel that I am starting to make friendships to last a lifetime, but although this is positive and exciting, it scares me, because friendships mean staying and putting down roots, and something in me still resists that. I want to run, to escape, to move back to Africa.  I do not want anything to ruin my plans and hinder me.  My intuition, however, tells me that something has gone out of balance in my life recently. Maybe my desire to leave has began to falter, maybe I am starting to lose my strength against the temptation of the city, or maybe this is all just a novelty phase that will wear off as summer turns into deep winter freeze, who knows.

Sala Kahle Mzansi – Stay Well South Africa

Today we leave South Africa on our very long flight to New York. I spent my last night in SA at my friend’s house. She is also the new adoptive mom of my cat Pete.

The day before that has been hectic with moving stuff and vacating the flight. At least I have 18 hours of doing nothing while en-route to JFK.

I am sending a shout-out and a heartfelt farewell to my beloved home country. Robert and I will come back, in two years. Stay well. Sala kahle my Mzansi.  Thank you for giving me a place to love and be proud of. Thank you for helping me grow up and find my patch on the rainbow. I will always think of the road leading to you as Paradise Road.


This matter of relocation is definitely not for the fainthearted. I am already intimidated, and I am mostly doing this alone. The entity employing me only gives me phone numbers and contacts, and it is left to me to sift through the mountains of information out there, and verify them if possible on the internet.

I realize now that I haven’t actually spilled the beans yet on what or where this is about. I am going to be employed by an international organization based in New York as an Associate Arabic Translator. This is of course a wonderful opportunity for me and for Robert but there are many challenges involved, and I am trying to overcome them one at a time.

The biggest obstacle so far is finding a proper pre-school for Robert, somewhere where he will be happy and looked after. He is doing so well at his pre-school here in Cape Town, and I am only going to enroll him at a pre-school in New York that is on the same level or better.

A few days ago I was so happy that one particular Child Care center in Midtown Manhattan had space for him. I thought that I had this figured, until on closer examination it turned out that the pre-school was in a basement of an office building and the children had only limited access to natural light. I had the disturbing image of child-prisoners going out for fresh air once or twice a day. I cannot do this to my son after living in the sunshine of South Africa and having access to open air playgrounds during school hours.  Of course South Africa has more sunny days than most places on earth but still, can you imagine having a child deprived of daylight ? The woman working at the centre said their working hours were from about seven in the morning until six in the evening, so it is conceivable that during winter some kids will arrive in the dark and leave in the dark, I cannot think of anything more depressing, even for an adult let alone a child.

My ex husband said that there are so many people competing on very little resources in Manhattan, so I am expanding now my search to residential areas with good transit access to town and wherever I find a good pre-school it will be where we will live. As this is my main focus now I haven’t even thought about shipping my few things, the logistics of moving my cat (if at all conceivable) and many other little problems that will surely present themselves as time moves on closer to the d-date.  I haven’t committed myself yet to the employer but I already gave notice on my rental flat and I have to be out of here by April 1st, so I hope I will manage to solve my problems until then.

If all else fails, there is help from family. My mother generously offered to be with me for the initial relocation period in New York, and thanks to this lifesaving gesture my fear has not reached the point of panic (yet).

When I first applied and attended the exams required for the job, I desperately wanted to be based in New York. Now I am not so sure, it seems it is awfully crowded busy and noisy and I have always been a small town girl. Cape Town to me is just big enough, and I cannot imagine living in a city where I have to compete with millions. I have to dig deep and keep my faith that things always work out in the end.